In January every year, we often make resolutions and look forward in eager anticipation to the year ahead. However, January is also an opportune time to reflect on the past and remember what life was like just a short time ago.
For example, today we have Bookshare and its vast library, ease of access, and tools for reading. However, printed content has not always been this accessible to people with print disabilities. Bookshare represents huge advances in accessibility and availability of content for individuals with print disabilities.
The path to Bookshare, under the leadership of CEO Jim Fruchterman, begins in the late 1970’s. His story about learning pattern recognition technology that would guide a missile to its target is legendary. He realized that if software could recognize military targets, why couldn’t software recognize letters to help blind people read! His idea eventually led to the invention of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology that could read just about any document, the founding of Arkenstone, and the first affordable reading machines for the blind.
Arkenstone at last gave Jim the ability to apply his idea and create a product for social good, his lifelong passion.
Jay Leventhal, an early fan of Jim’s, recently said:
At that time, Jim was a young scrapper of a man, a rocket scientist and engineer from Stanford, CA. He had a flare about him and an energy that could entice a crowd. His ability to engage people with enthusiasm and fantasy ideas was contagious. I believed in Jim and his vision to build a reading system for blind people through OCR.” (Optical Character Recognition) and I guess he decided to choose this direction of social good when one of his rockets exploded.
Jay’s belief was rewarded, and Jim’s vision came to fruition. Early users were thrilled with the change in their lives. Paul Henrichsen, one of the early users said:
I remember the old days with the TrueScan[i] board. We really thought we had something great! We could actually go to the bookstore, buy a book and scan it. We knew that if it took the OCR over two minutes to recognize a page, that there would probably be a poorly recognized page. If it was under two minutes, we knew we were in luck and would more than likely get a good scan.
We used to scan a book in batch mode without doing the OCR; then, when we went to bed, we would let the Arkenstone software do the recognition because it took six hours or more. We would laugh about how great it was and how we really thought we had something. Now, it takes seconds to OCR a page. I can’t tell you how many novels I scanned daily and then let them recognize at night while I was asleep. And, wasn’t that wonderful!”
Arkenstone changed the lives of families too. Mrs. Bryant, the mother of Zach Bryant, a young man with cerebral palsy, scanned a lot of books with Arkenstone. She said, “We saw Zach’s reading level jump three grades. What a difference assistive technologies can make.”
In the end, Arkenstone changed a tremendous number of lives. Reading machines that recognized more than a dozen languages were sold to over 35,000 individuals, schools and libraries in 60 countries. Arkenstone led breakthroughs in price barriers as well. As a deliberately non-profit social enterprise, Arkenstone steadily kept dropping the price of its reading machines, from $5000 to $1200. Access to content, instead of being affordable by a few hundred, became affordable by thousands. Arkenstone was one of the world’s most successful examples of a high technology social enterprise, using an innovative business model to achieve major social objectives in education, employment and independence. In 2000, a for-profit company bought the Arkenstone business assets. Jim changed the name of the nonprofit to Benetech and used the proceeds to start even more social enterprises.
To be continued: Stories about the early days of Bookshare. Please subscribe to the blog for the next installment.
If you’d like to contribute to the story of years ago, please add a comment!
[i] The TrueScan boardwas a card inserted into a PC specifically to perform OCR. PCs didn’t have enough processing power for OCR.